Literature Straight From My Ovaries Because That's Where I Also Keep My Brain Cells

20 April 2012

Reading this, by Jennifer Weiner, a hugely successful author, got me thinking about what I don't like about the label 'chick lit'. If you're just joining me, then you may not know that in the past, in the press and on this blog at various points, I have rebelled against the label. 'Chick lit', I say, stridently, 'is about a young woman whose motivations are solely based on her relationship. In the end, she finds her perfect lover and walks off into the sunset with him.' By arguing that my book didn't follow that formula, I implied that while it's all very well for other authors to write about relationships and accept the label 'chick lit' with such impunity, it wasn't for me. In a way (see this article I did for Open magazine) I was being as bad as the men, slightly condescending, "Oh, a happy relationship? How trite." But fellow authors of the female persuasion, accept this as an apology and let us not be happy with that label that dogs us everywhere we go, in bookstores, on pretty pink covers, on the start of guilt that our readers give when someone sees them reading us, because we're so easily dismissible and they should really be reading a Dude. Because, dudes are the only ones who can be taken seriously. Because when a Dude writes about love it's literature. Because a Dude can write about drugs AND love AND his mother AND travelling and no one will focus on just the love bit, they'll say, "Oh what far ranging topics" but the moment we dare introduce even an inkling of "She wondered what would happen to their relationship" it's like DING DING DING! CHICK LIT!

It has to be hetero normative, no one would call a novel about two lesbians chick lit. If you care about fashion and you mention that in your writing, you'll get a cover with shoes on it. Lady, you could have written a thesis on Coco Chanel, no one cares, if your heroine is seen with a high end designer bag, just resign yourself to the shoes on the cover.

Here's a fun fact: I have read pretty much every single significant Indian author to come out in the last five years. Here's another fun fact: it's almost one hundred percent likely that they have not read me. Not just me--I mean, I'm totally biased about my own books and think they're pretty good, but other "chick lit" authors as well. They've done well, you guys! They've sold and sold and sold and yet, there's no recognition by the Club. I'm also not making a case for bad writing, there's shitloads of bad writing, and that is dreadful, but some of the women authors I have read have been GOOD. They've resonated. They've made me laugh. They've made me not want to stop reading.

This is an old battle. You write for prizes and for membership to the Club or you write to be read. In India, there really aren't any woman writers who have done as well as Chetan Bhagat. Because why? Because I'LL TELL YOU WHY: Chetan Bhagat isn't getting slapped with a 'just for boys' label. No, he gets to be unisex, his covers are gender neutral and women writers, with a certain price point who don't write about death and despair and so on, get the whole HI-NO-BOYS-ALLOWED covers, which means you're slotted along with other covers in the same shade of fuchsia/pink/bright blue and your male readers have no chance of getting access to you.

A generation ago, in order to be taken seriously as a woman writer, you had to dress down. The dowdier the better. If you were pretty or fashionable, people assumed you sucked at what you did. Doing book tours, I consider my wardrobe. Because I'm being marketed as a certain kind of author, I have to play along, and I kinda enjoy dressing nice. I like nice clothes! I like money! I'm sorry! This shouldn't take away from the fact that a) I love writing and b) I have never, ever, not once compromised on what I want to say on the printed page. Shouldn't this make SOME sort of difference?

"Don't tell my mother you write about sex," said a friend to me the other day when I went to her house. I almost looked behind me. Who was she talking to? Not me, surely. She didn't think that's what I did, did she? "Writes about sex". Wow. I bet you wouldn't introduce Tarun Tejpal that way, and his descriptions are far more graphic than mine. Sex is part of what I write about, yes, because the stories I tell, the women I write about, are having it. And it's important. I'm not dismissing it. But in that way, I also write about women, I write about love. I write about friendship, I write about family and so on, but no one's in a hurry to push me into those slots. 'Sex writer' is the easiest, most salacious label, but saying, "oh, you asked for it" is like saying "you have sex and so you should be raped." Just because I don't treat sex like this big old dirty elephant turd in the cat litter box that no one wants to acknowledge doesn't mean that I am suddenly eM the Sex Writer. Or "sex blogger" as a friend introduced me at a party. "No, I'm not," I said, "I don't have ANY graphic descriptions of sex." "Don't be shy of your past!" she said, merrily. Sex bloggers exist, you guys, and they'd think I was so tame. But maybe I am only being defensive of it because I secretly have come to believe these labels.

So, yes. "Chick lit". What's it going to take to get people to stop calling women writers who write about relationships that? Do we all have to grow a penis? (OH MY GOD, SHE SAID PENIS SHE'S A SEX BLOGGER) I think, the first step is for us, women who write to be read, who write about relationships, to disagree with that label. You may say it doesn't matter. It's just a publishing thing. But it does. With each person calling you a "chick lit author", you're allowing them to basically pat you on the head, tell you what a pretty girl you are and now, run away, the grown ups are talking. Say it with me, "I write about relationships. I don't agree with the label 'chick lit'. I think it's derogatory. I'm sorry you now no longer have an easy way to classify my writing in your head. Maybe you should try reading it?"  If nothing else, we'll make more sales, which is always a good thing, right?

40 confessing back:

  1. Oh its not just the writers. Am a science gal,i have a masters in astrophysics from one of the top notch universities in the world. I'm not exactly drop dead gorgeous,but I am considered attractive,and I like to dress well. So automatically I get labelled a bimbo. I have to prove that I am as good as or better than the guys everytime,to get the same grant these guys get just by assembling paper work. Or they treat me like i am my brainy dad's (he is a prof) dumb daughter till i prove otherwise (this happened very recently and i am still seething about it).

    As for being labelled as sex writer,its not all bad being our Desi Carrie Bradshaw,is it? ;)Girl,you rock,and the people who 'label' you, can't change that :)

    In most walks of life,it still is a man's world and women have to work extra hard to prove themselves. I think that dialogue from 'the dirty picture' had it right; "History uthaa ke dekh lo, do cheezein hamesha common rahi hain. Mardo ka zamaan raha hain, aur aurton ne aakey aafat ki hain". Its not good enough,but its a start ;) :D

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  2. Thank you for this post. As a writer I'm tired of labels and adjectives. Why are writers who happen to be women get to be called "Women Writers" whereas a male writer just gets called a writer (no adjectives). All these stereotypes are suffocating and silly. I'll agree it's a publishing thing, but then again we need to stop people from labelling us- it's time we tell them- Hey we just write okay, so what if it's about our relationships, or about guys or about our not so nice jobs, so what??

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  3. Amen to that.

    I agree with everything you say here. I mean, no one terms literature by men with men protagonists as 'lad lit' so why do women writing about women have to be 'chick lit' authors. It's so derogatory, but considering we come from a society that finds women as easily dismissible as toilet paper, I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise.

    I'm glad you're taking a stand, though. EVERY woman author should.

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  4. "If you care about fashion and you mention that in your writing, you'll get a cover with shoes on it."
    Darn, I didn't realise this, but you're right and it breaks my heart to know this </3

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  5. Hi eM,

    I have always been an admirer of your writing. I love this post. It's so true that people just put you into pre-defined slots, you know. And it's not just writers, readers as well. I was reading your book the other day and this guy says "Oh you like Chick Lit...ugh". And I was so irritated because You Are Here was more than just Chick Lit. It was a spicy slice of life!
    What bugged me even more is he just pegged me down to be one of those girls(read bimbos) who just reads Chick Lit all the time.
    But you know, such people aren't worth it. You just keep on writing and entertaining :)

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  6. Thanks, it's really nice hearing from all of you, and seeing that so many people agree with me about discarding that label. Didn't realise it spilled over to other professions as well, that was an interesting comment, Buttercup. :) Anyway, always nice to have my rants/rambles read, so thank you again!

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  7. Well, it IS hurtful to be labelled, but ever wondered there might be another reason to it besides societal conditioning of readers/audiences?

    "Chick lits" are called "chick lits" for their lack of depth of understanding, more than anything else... ever imagined someone dare calling Ayn rand's fountainhead "chick lit"??? It had sex in it and LOADS of it, yet no-one calls her sex-writer!

    Ranting and telling people off is an easier way to do everything, but try breaking the barrier by ACTUAL substance!!

    PS: I am a WOMAN writer

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    1. ayn rand sucks a lot, WOMAN writer.

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  8. A "woman writer" so brave that you're afraid to use your own name. Yeah, great stroke for feminism right there.

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  9. stupid post. Write something of actual substance, instead of being all carrie-bradshaw-like and then perhaps people might take your writing seriously. And to buttercup, if you are really smart, people will treat you smart, whether you dress up or not.

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  10. Hi eM,

    I know why you're ranting here and that is totally justified. So, I won't say anything about the rant. If you don't want to be labelled, then that's your call and you have all the rights to say that.

    But, as far as the rant about 'Chick Lit' is concerned, well, it is an established genre, which is called chick-lit not because it is written by women about women but because it appeals to women and they are the target readers. Also, some of the features of chick-lit are that while the protagonist (who is always a woman) IS looking for "the love of her life", she is also trying to figure out her career, balance between love life and work life, deal with family and/ or society's pre-requisites for a woman (like a fair vagina :/) etc.

    The pink/ fuschia thing is not really true. There are many covers in different shades and different editions. In fact, books which might be for teenage girls (which is not 'Chick Lit' as 'Chick Lit' mainly deals with women in their 30's - and hence, the pressure to find "The Right One") in shades of pink. But, Chick Lit uses more fashion-concious colours. That and the accessories (shoes were made popular by Carrie but there are also illustrations of cocktail glasses, bags and little black dresses which are popular) talk for the single girl living (mostly) alone in the city. Thus, need for acceptance gives rise to brand conscious symbols.

    Chick Lit started out as a post-feminist answer to feminism. And so, your outrage against it is understandable. But, it also tries to make a statement against those who judge women for being single, "undomesticated", brand-concious, actively seeking out partners, choosing career over love etc. So, rather than post-feminist, I would like to say it is a different brand of feminism.

    Problem is that the female sex in literature, much like the muslim in today's literature/ films, is always looked at/ judged/ read into. There is always some or the other opinion about it. Thus, the need to be stereotyped, boxed and labelled.

    Phew, a bit of a research paper there. But, I felt like I needed to clear 'Chick Lit's' position, what with all the stuff going against it. :(

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  11. Hey... I can understand how you feel... but as a reader I think the title "chick lit" helps me zero onto authors I would want to read. I mean, a book about "relationships" can be boring... "chick lit" gives the feeling of a light, good, fun book which is going to relax me.
    Men will always find titles for women... just shrug it off. It will not stop men or women from reading "chick lit" if they like it.

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  12. Dude, your book was totally about a woman and her quest for the perfect guy.

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  13. Very true. I agree even though I am not an author. As a reader it annoys me that books I read are taken less seriously and no men read them because they are by women so are "chick lit". Also I notice is that when men write about books about relationships they never get labelled as being chick lit or even light reading etc. Instead they have famous authors cite them on the blurb etc. The most recent example I have is "One Day". Would it have been as successful if it had been written by a woman? Even if it had been successful it would still have been labelled "chick lit".

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  14. I wouldn't want a "sex writer" label but is a "chick lit" label so bad? I love me my Sophie Kinselleas, Jennifer Weiner's and the rest. Have you read Jennifer's Good In Bed?

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  15. Okay, here we go...

    I agree with Carpe Diem above. I think 'Chick lit' is called that b/c it's targeted at women and appeals to them, not b/c it's a book about relationships written by a woman.

    Historically, there have been countless women writers who have written about relationships - Jane Austen, Ayn Rand etc. But their books weren't classified as chick lit b/c they appealed to both the sexes.

    There are plenty of intelligent 'chick lit' authors out there - authors who write stuff that is genuinely funny AND clever. Sophie Kinsella, Helen Fielding, Jennifer Weiner and Lauren Weisberger being examples of that. 'Almost Single' by Advaita Kala is a great example of funny chick-lit by an Indian author.

    I'm sorry but your book 'You Are Here' was just nowhere close to being funny OR clever. You write well, I'l give you that. But the book was a bore, a total waste of time and 100 bucs, and enough to put me off your books for good. The only reason I still read your blog is b/c it's free, and I'm curious to know what you'll be going off about next b/c I think you're a try hard, and you're out to prove a point. It's like someone forgot to tell you that bra-burning feminism died decades ago.

    You couldn't even think of a better name for your first book ('You Are Here' is as lame as it gets), and you lifted Sophie Kinsella's title for your second ('Confessions of a List Maniac', really?)

    So there you go...I've wanted to give you this feedback for years having read your first book when it came out, but I resisted. However, when you write stuff like this, asking to be taken seriously as an author is when I've got to let you know what I thought of your book.

    Mine is just one opinion of course, I'm sure there are plenty of takers for your books. It just didn't work for me and I can't even consider you a good chick-lit author that I would want to buy again.

    PS: No, I don't like Chetan Bhagat either and it's got nothing to do with 'chick lit'

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  16. Ohhkay. Maybe I didn't make my point as clearly as I thought I had. So, basically summarising:
    1) My writing is my writing. Obviously, I think I'm okay enough at it to continue to attempt to make a living from it. You are all, of course, free to read or not read, to agree or disagree. This was not meant to be a post on the QUALITY of my writing or my books.
    2) The point of this post was to basically discourage the use of the phrase "chick lit". Many of you have written saying that chick lit is okay, it's escapist, it's FINE. I object to the "little girlishness" of the phrase, the fact that it sounds dismissive. You say not all covers are pink, in this case we shall agree to disagree, because all the covers I've seen so far have some sort of pink on them and that swirly font that is associated with women for some reason. I don't like the phrase "chick lit" because it looks down upon female writers, someone on this comment thread rightly pointed out David Nicholl's One Day as an example of a man who could write about a relationship and receive critical acclaim. I assure you, if David was a Diana, this would not be the case. I have nothing against escapist/commercial literature. I enjoy it myself. My ONLY objection is with the phrase "chick lit", which grates on my nerves like nails on a chalkboard.
    3) The other point I was trying to make, and which I have received several nice emails about is that it's an unequal world. We have to work harder to be taken seriously in our chosen fields because we're women. Reading comments over at a magazine website, a very well written article about a current event, made me sad. Because after a bit, all the comments were, "she's really not sexy". How is this something you feel the need to share vis a vis a piece of writing? Would this point be made if she was a man? I think not.

    Also, I get it. I read lots of blogs where I'm internally rolling my eyes at the blogger's newest antics. But I don't normally waste my time leaving comments on them. This is public space, this is also private space. My little square foot of the internet. I'm glad you chose to log in with your profile, Scarlett, because then I can't just dismiss you as a random troll. But I am concerned that you would spend this lovely Sunday telling me how derivative you think my writing is. May I point you towards my link list instead? You will find lots of good writers running good blogs that you might prefer to mine in the future.

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    1. I just love all your blogs.. very much and am a big fan of yours... you really inspire me... but this ain't how you react to the comments gal... there is little maturity needed.....

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  18. Chick-lit usually refers to books that are written by women for women -- usually light, breezy, lacking depth in terms of the plot, which isn't complex. There is nothing of substance, so to speak of. It usually focuses on a woman's search for Mr. Right -- throw in issues like juggling her love and work life, financial issues, love of shoes, dropping some fashion names etc. and voila, you have got yourself a book. I say it's written for women because no guy I know wants to read about some women fretting about how her biological clock is ticking or how she really wants the new Gucci bag.

    I also don't know anyone who would call Chetan Bhagat's work "literature" and for that I am very grateful. There are many female authors whose work is enjoyed by both sexes and who aren't labelled as chick-lit. Suzanne Collins, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Sebold, Margaret Atwood come to mind. Right now I can't think of any male authors who write books exclusively targeted at men about the latest in video-games or brewing your own beer and/or trying not to get a woman pregnant. Hey, maybe there's a market in that?

    I don't see anything derogatory in the label, I enjoy fluff once in a while and I am sure, so do a lot of women. I don't think there's anything to be ashamed of or not wanting to be associated with it. There's good chick-lit and bad chick lit, more of the latter than the former, if we were to be honest. I haven't read too much Indian chick-lit or your books, for that matter, but I whatever little I have come across, I have been put off by how trite the writing is, how inauthentic it feels. The plots feel forced and the whole thing feels like it is trying too hard. A perfect case for wannabe-dom, if there ever was. The whole "I am so cool and liberated because I drink gin-and-tonics/smoke a pack a day/sleep around" is mind-numbing.

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  19. eM,

    Agree with you that it's tougher for women to be taken seriously - especially if they dress well/are pretty.

    However, disagree with you that all women who write about relationships are immediately labelled 'chick-lit' writers. It is not just about the content, but also about the way it's written - light/frothy/etc, as people have said above. I've picked up such books because they're light reads. They're good for time-pass; they don't challenge you.

    Yes, chick-lit is a derogatory term, but women who write such books surely know who their target audience is. And, btw, there IS a category of lad-lit as well, though more in the UK than anywhere else, I think.

    P.S. - I have to admit I haven't read your books, so I can't comment on whether you're being rightly/wrongly categorized as chick-lit. (Your rant seems to have been triggered by that.)

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  20. See, this is just not on. A) By being an author you've chosen to put yourself out there, and when you're out there, you're completely out there. There are no half measures. You have to be prepared for negative feedback as well as positive. I did not abuse you or criticize you on something completely irrelevant to what you do - such as the way you look, the way you dress, or the r/ships you have. I'm sure people have given you feedback via other forums, and I'm sure you don't ask them all to get lost if it's negative.

    B) I acknowledge this is your blog but it's a public blog and people will comment. If you're so sensitive about people's reactions to your posts/writing, you should either make your blog a private one or enable comment moderation.

    And I don't think I wasted my Sunday leaving you a comment. I've spent my money on your book, and that gives me the right to tell you whether I liked it or not. I did give it to you that you write well, so this is an honest feedback and you've got to take the negative with the positive. You're free not to care about it.

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  21. Haha, I love what Scarlett said.

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  22. Bravo, Scarlett! Now THAT is the way to write a critical point of view. Well done. And I fully agree about everything you said.

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  23. eM, I love your blog and have been a regular reader for a while now, but I see Scarlett does have a point.

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  24. Eh, whatever, as long as you lot are buying/reading what I write even if it is to bitch about how awful it is, I guess I shouldn't complain.

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  26. I agree with you on the fact that "Chick-lit", as a label, is derogatory. We dont have labels for anything that men write on.
    And yes, it is tougher for a pretty, fashionable woman to be taken seriously, unless she counteracts with gravest of demeanor.

    But the fact that books which are labelled as "Chicklits" are pretty much on the surface, is also true

    If your fight is only about the labeling, then you are true on your stand.
    But if its about the depth of such books, compared to Jane Austen, Ayn Rand and other women writers(I can even cite some Indian women authors like Kamla Das), then they dont compare.

    Chick-lits are suited for some moods of a woman

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  27. This is one post of yours which I agree with start to end! I've frequently observed that people with a prejudiced mind judge before they soak things in and that's what usually happens and tends to labels.
    I liked the 4th para.
    And yes..I love your writing, may it be your blog or your books!

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  28. Scarlett: That's some tough love :)
    eM: Good rant. Very pertinent and clearly heartfelt. Everyone is very sympathetic about the chicklit label being unduly derogatory, but if one has to pretend to depth, one has to be deeper. Sadly.

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  29. Never thought of your writing as chick-lit or shallow. I could totally relate to some aspects of Arshi - esp the part about having unconventional parents and how it affects you, the need for being on talking terms with someone and the way it takes a load off your mind, career-blues, loneliness etc...these are quite real issues and I think only people with a certain worldview can really get what you are saying. Your book may not be thought-provoking or address world poverty or hunger, but by no means is it shallow.

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  30. Maybe the way to combat it is to go on the offensive? Lets combine and make up a derogatory word for guys who write about relationships.Ah sexism!

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  31. Just as a point of clarification, Scarlett and co. didn't buy your book to bitch about it. They bought it because they thought they'd enjoy it. And they didn't. Seems fair enough to me.

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  32. I havent read your book . I havent read your blog in ages .I'm not an avid reader of "chick lit" Indian or otherwise . And I disagree with you that most women writers are bracketed under the chick lit label . Hello - have you heard of Anuradha Roy? Or Kiran Desai or Anita Desai ? Gauri Dange ? Shashi Deshpande? Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, to name a few . Their writing has depth, substance and content which makes women and men ( surprise ! surprise! ) revisit them . Perhaps women who are labelled as chick lit writers can foray out of their petty little realms and look at the world at large and then write about something which fortunately will not warrant the statutory pink,blue,mauve covers with stilletos / handbags / lingerie draped over them ! Mallika

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  33. Firstly, the title of this blog took me by surprise. I haven't read your books, but yes I shall consider reading them now. It is definitely because of this blog.

    I agree that pretty gals are not taken seriously, but then MOST of them, I repeat MOST of them are not good enough to be taken seriously. Out of 10 pretty gals that I know of only 2 of them are worth TALKING TO. Rest are only worth LOOKING AT and that's where it ends. Probably THAT 80% is responsible for the stupid belief that pretty gals are not intelligent.

    http://subhashdeviprabha.blogspot.in/

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  34. I think 'Scarlett' has a point to prove here.... I liked what 'Scarlett' had said on this post. I also agree that this post can create a controversy...

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  35. "Eh, whatever, as long as you lot are buying/reading what I write even if it is to bitch about how awful it is, I guess I shouldn't complain."

    Goddamnit you have taken all the fun out for me in reading your books. No more Chetan Bhagat for me either. And I will stop watching Khan Sisters.

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  36. Labeling people is something the society in general seems to enjoy. And though some people here have said the label chick lit is not a big deal, some people understand it as - "Chick lits" are called "chick lits" for their lack of depth of understanding, more than anything else, even while by definition it is - genre fiction within women's fiction which addresses issues of modern women often humorously and lightheartedly. So yes labeling sucks whatever sort it is. Why not people learn to take a person for what she/he is rather than simply categorize and label is something to ponder on, that said you do have to rebel in order that the label is questioned, or the least the label-ers stop to think

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  37. I just discovered you. And boy! am I glad I did. The funny thing about labels: they create expectations - put you into boxes. With 'chick-lit' I expect, a modern day fairy-tale with a fair bit of sex thrown in. Fairy-tales are all well and good, but they become mind numbing after a while. After prolonged binging on M&Bs, my taste-buds couldn't handle any more of it; I have been avoiding those bright 'pink' books with 'stilettos and bags' on the cover. Now though, I am up for a re-think. Thank you. Keep confessing, the world can certainly do with more of such interesting confessions.

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